The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Gregg v. Georgia —which involved a prosecution for a double murder committed in the course of a robbery—rejected the legal argument that capital punishment in and of itself constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” and thus violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Some observers had predicted that the Court’s earlier ruling in Furman v. Georgia (1972)—which struck down state systems that afforded juries sweeping discretion in imposing the death penalty—would spell the end of capital punishment in the United States. Many states, including Georgia, however, responded to the Furman ruling by enacting new death penalty laws. Some state legislatures reformed their statutes to deal with the problem of undue jury discretion identified in Furman by mandating capital punishment for all persons convicted of first-degree murder.
The Georgia General Assembly, however, sought to deal with concerns about the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty by adopting “guided discretion” sentencing schemes. Under this approach, if a defendant was convicted of first-degree murder or another death-eligible offense, the prosecutor could ask the court to conduct a second “penalty stage” of the trial. After this second proceeding, the jury could impose the death sentence only if it found that the prosecution had proven a statutorily specified “aggravating circumstance” (such as that the murder was motivated by financial gain or directed at an on-duty correctional officer or a judge).
In addition, even if the prosecution proved the existence of an aggravating circumstance, the jury could decline to impose the death sentence and impose a life sentence instead, if it found that “mitigating evidence”—such as emotional difficulties or childhood abuse of the defendant—warranted leniency in the particular case.
In Gregg the U.S. Supreme Court, by a seven-to-two vote, upheld Georgia’s guided-discretion approach to capital punishment, although in companion decisions the Court invalidated other states’ mandatory death-penalty statutes as “unduly harsh and unworkably rigid.” The decisive opinion in Gregg, joined by justices Potter Stewart and John Paul Stevens, reasoned that Georgia had adequately addressed the problem of unfettered jury discretion and added that “respect for the ability of a legislature to evaluate, in terms of its particular State, the moral consensus concerning the death penalty and its social utility as a sanction, require us to conclude that . . . [it] . . . is not unconstitutionally severe.” The “guided discretion” approach to the death penalty, upheld by the Court in Gregg, has been adopted in a large majority of states and continues to control capital sentencing in murder cases throughout the nation to the present day.